New tools are expensive and you may not really need that many. See the list below for the basic items which most people need, but otherwise try buying things only when you find you really need them.
If you can, lay your hands on a set of good second-hand tools that have been properly looked after. Alternatively you may find individual items on eBay or in secondhand shops.
For good quality new tools, look at the range offered by Abbey England and Tandy.
Nearly everything I use can be seen in the pictures at the top of this page, though some of these are unnecessary duplicates.
Not illustrated here are: vital supplies such as the leather itself; brass rings, slides, clips, studs and buckles; braided cotton webbing; sandpaper and contact adhesive; dyes, leather treatments and polishes; work-top tools such as a large right-angle 'square', a polished granite block and lead block (for stamping and punching work) and electric buffing wheels.
Everyone works and organises their tools in their own way. For me given the sorts of things I make I divide my tools into five broad groups (cutting, preparing, punching/stamping, stitching, finishing) which are kept separately in waterproof boxes. I like having just one box beside me when I'm cutting out and preparing the project and another self-contained set when, for example, I'm stitching. Inevitably a few tools, such as scratch awls and small rulers are therefore duplicates.
- Cutting boards are very important throughout a project. I use nylon kitchen chopping boards, available cheaply in most supermarkets.
- Several Scratch Awls (pointed tools used rather like a pencil for marking out leather) one in each work box
- Knives & blades (see pictures at top of page and left): I have a Clicker's knife (invaluable), a general purpose Straight knife, a shaped French knife; a straight angled Skiving knife and a curved Opinel knife for stitching. I also have a traditional English Round knife which I tend to avoid as it's viciously dangerous if you handle it wrongly. I also have a number of surgical scalpels.
- I have three hammers (see pictures at top of page and left): a heavy iron mallet for stamping work (using leather offcuts to protect the tool heads), a small tack hammer and an all-purpose dual-headed polyurethane hammer.
- There is a wide range of available Punches & stamping tools (see pictures at top of page and left), but what one needs depends on the work envisaged. Some, like strap-end punches, wad punches, crew punches and button-hole punches can be very expensive. Simple hole punches are cheaper. A simple belt, for example, will need an oblong punched slot (perhaps 1") for the buckle tongue to pass through, as well as normal belt holes (a No. 5 perhaps) and perhaps a shaped end (such as a 1" English point). If you have to buy these (new or second-hand) they should, however, last a lifetime if used properly.
- The tools and supplies for Stitching (see pictures at top of page and left) are generally much cheaper. I use black or brown Ritza/Tiger polyester waxed braided thread (1mm thick in spools of 500 metres) and standard blunt-ended harness needles for almost all my projects. While stitching I keep beside me a Scratch awl, a small pair of curved pliers (to tackle awkward needles) and a sharp, curved-blade Opinel knife. Most importantly I prepare my stitching holes in advance using diamond-pointed Japanese pricking irons and use an indispensable smooth-ended diamond-shaped stitching awl to finish hole preparation. Also in my stitching box is a small ruler, a small lump of beeswax and a bone 'folder' for settling and smoothing finished stitching.
I'm not an expert on leather because until now, almost without exception, I've used recycled English, Italian, Belgian and French leathers. My advice is to research the whole subject in detail and then use the best leather you can find and can afford, taking advice from good local suppliers.
All leather is expensive and I use full-grain, vegetable-tanned hides (as used in the best quality English harnesses and saddlery), but these are some of the most expensive of all. Among softer leathers, Italian hides are superb. I have been very unimpressed by some soft Argentine leather as sold in well-known craft shops. It has little strength or resilience and is generally 'soggy', quickly losing its shape.
In Britain, Abbey England or Tandy can advise on what hides would suit your project and which part of the hide would best suit your needs.
My experience is that a finished project never looks any better than the quality of the materials, tools and skills put into it.
Work surfaces, cutting boards and light
I find it easiest to stand while doing most of my cutting and preparation. For this reason I have a high, very solid timber work surface (91 cm from the floor), covered with a clean old blanket. I also have several very bright lights (from different angles) so that I can see and work very precisely. The work surface needed for most leatherwork can be surprisingly small. Mine is 100cm x 60cm and more than big enough for my needs and all my tools in racks at the back. Part of this surface is taken up by a Dremel 4000 rotary tool (mounted on a Dremel drill press) which saves a lot of time in finishing edges, polishing brass fittings and keeping tools sharp.
Until leather has been treated and polished it's extremely sensitive to cuts, scratches and stains (just like human skin). This is especially so when leather is damp which it needs to be when you want it to take up a particular form or you need it to receive your maker's stamp. The blanket greatly reduces the risk of damage. In fact, leather is so vulnerable to nicks and blemishes that I keep my finger-nails well trimmed and never leave anything metallic or sharp on the work surface. I also do any messy and risky work (dyeing/staining, stamping, punching, fat treating, wax polishing, etc) on a separate work surface.
Stitching needs a minimal work surface and can be done seated almost anywhere around the house provided there is plenty of light. Outside in daylight is best for me and when I have a long run of saddle stitching to do, I use a yew-wood stitching clamp made for me by a friend. The jaws of the clamp hold two pieces of work together, leaving me two hands free to work the awl and needles.
The first items I made were sometimes dreadful. This was because I had no idea at the time how important it was to plan ahead and think the project through.
When you've made your third turkey, you too will agree that spending a few minutes cutting out cardboard shapes is time well spent. Plan the project very, very precisely (measuring to the nearest millimetre) and then think through how and in which order each piece will be sewn to the next, bearing in mind that some may need to be fitted out with straps, buckles, rings, slots, etc., before they're stitched to others. There will be a logically correct assembly order and it's best to have all the components ready and finished before they're put together.
It is at this stage that you'll have to remember to skive this piece, punch holes in that piece and run an edging tool around a third piece, because it may be too late to do these things if you've already stitched them up and (as it were) painted yourself into a corner.
If you get the chance to take apart an old dog-collar, a sad handbag or a disintegrating knife scabbard, you'll soon work out how the original makers must have prepared their work. Common sense will show you how they pre-assembled the various components and finally stitched them together. The fun bit is finding a more elegant solution of your own.
There are just two simple rules to cutting: use the right knife for the right job and be sure that the blades are always razor sharp. Unless your blades are at their sharpest, the results will be poor and the knives themselves will become dangerous.
I have four specialist knives that I use on almost every job. The first is a 'clicker's knife' which has a short, curved blade like a hawk's beak. This is used for cutting out lengths or shapes of leather in straight or curved lines from the original hide.
Next I have an exotic 'French knife' which can sometimes replace the 'Clicker's knife' but which is cleverly designed to be useful for cutting, shaping and skiving in all sorts of situations. This is the French equivalent of the English 'Round knife' and I find it easier to use.
The third is an angled 'Skiving knife'. Skiving (thinning down the edge of a piece of leather or tapering the end of a belt or strap) can be done with many specialist tools and you need to use whatever feels safest and suits you best. For me, the angled Skiving knife works well but only if the blade is truly razor sharp and finely polished.
The fourth knife is quite simply a 'Straight knife' a fairly standard, all-purpose knife for trimming edges, corners, strap-ends, etc.
Knocking around on my work surface are two or three other pocket knives too: a curved Opinel pruners' knives for stitching and a small straight-bladed Opinel knife for general workshop needs. Keeping all these blades in good condition is easier if you have a steel file (flat, fine-grade) for re-angling or re-shaping a damaged blade; a carborundum stone (good quality, fine-grade + oil); a high-speed rotary buffing/polishing wheel (e.g. Dremel); and a leather strop (like this) that you can make yourself to hone your blades before starting a new task.
Needles & thread
The art of saddle stitching (e.g. using two harness needles, one at each end of a length of thread) is not complicated but it involves a technique that needs to be mastered all the same. I learnt a great deal from the excellent YouTube films made by Ian Atkinson of Leodis Leather... [thank you, Ian!].
The only thing I would add to his advice is NEVER to skimp on thread. There's nothing more infuriating than to come almost to end of a row of stitching and then find that you haven't got quite enough. Thread is by far the cheapest material in your project, so use at least as much as you need.
'Enough' thread means giving yourself a length that is 4, 5, 6 or even 7 times the linear length you intend to sew in one go. The exact length depends, of course, on the number of stitches per inch and the thickness of your leather. If you were stitching together two thicknesses of 2mm leather you might need 4x the linear length, but if you were sewing three thicknesses of 4mm leather you could easily need 7x the linear length. But to be safe, if you calculate that it's 4x, give yourself 5x... if you think it's 5x, give yourself 6x...
The other rule is to prepare your work as precisely as you possibly can. As I said above, leather is extremely strong and resilient, but it's also very delicate and supple. If you count your stitches wrongly the leather will happily stretch to accommodate your error. But beware, because when you see your finished piece, just one stitch too many (or too few) can skew the whole finished article out of true.
Items made since Spring 2016
- iPhone vertical case with hole for charging, brown recycled saddle leather stitched and 4 rivets + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud. In stock
- iPhone vertical case with hold for charging, black recycled saddle leather stitched and 4 rivets + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud. Given to Bernard Brécy
- Round knife sheath, in new dark brown English saddle leather all stitched. For me
- Holster for waterproof box, in new dark brown English saddle leather all stitched + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud. Given to Yoko & Arnaud de Coupigny as a wedding present with picnic items
- iPhone & glasses clutch bag, new two-tone brown English saddle leather all stitched + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud. For Sarah
- Spectacles case, small black recycled saddle leather all stitched. For SRL
- Spectacles case, small recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For me
- Spectacles case, large recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For me
- Sandwich box case, recycled two-tone brown saddle leather all stitched + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud. For Timur D'Vatz
- Sandwich box case, recycled two-tone brown saddle leather all stitched + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud. In stock
- Sandwich box case with carrying handle, recycled two-tone brown saddle leather all stitched + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud for bicycle repair kit. For me
- iPhone & glasses case with carrying handle, recycled two-tone brown saddle leather stitched and 5 rivets + D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud. For Ingrid de Lautour's 70th birthday
- Large sandwich box case with brass buckle, recycled brown saddle leather all stitched + D-ring. For me [Improved in 11-2016 with military brass buckle and carrying handle]
- Sheath for small leatherwork knife, recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For me
- Sheath for large leatherwork knife made from band-saw steel, recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For me
- Pouch for leatherwork needles, recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For me
- Small slim horizontal iPhone 6S case with hole for charging, round corners, recycled black saddle leather all stitched + large D-ring and Sam Brown fastening stud, used by me for quite a while. Given to Lydie Eyckmans
- Leather strop with nickel-plated rings at each end, recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For Colin King
- Smaller satchel with three straps, one with brass buckle and two attaching to Sam Brown studs, recycled black saddle leather all stitched, designed for Brompton bike. For me
- A4 leather artist’s folder with stiff spine and black leather stiffening panel (contains a drawing pad) and with double leather bootlace straps to hold folded A3 documents (brown), recycled soft Italian leather all stitched. For Timur D’Vatz
- Small slim horizontal iPhone 6S case with hole for charging, rounded flap corners, recycled black saddle leather all stitched with Sam Brown stud. For Alison Rowe
- Small slim horizontal Galaxy phone case with square flap corners, recycled saddle leather all stitched with Sam Brown stud and brown closing strap stitched to contain a small D-ring (black). For Ales Sedlar
- Small slim horizontal iPhone 6S case with holes for charging and sound, square corners, recycled black saddle leather all stitched. In stock
- Small slim horizontal iPhone 6S case with hole for charging, square corners, recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For Bill Hollis
- Larger satchel with three straps, one with brass buckle and two attached to Sam Brown studs, recycled black saddle leather all stitched, designed for Brompton bike. For me
- Sheath for 2nd straight knife, recycled black saddle leather all stitched (black). For me
- Visitors' Book cover in brown Italian leather with spine bracing and two pockets, recycled soft Italian leather all stitched. For us
- Two double strap slip dog collars (34.5cm and 35cm) with interlocking large steel rings, recycled saddle leather. For Kernel and Pepin
- A slip dog collar with strip for a name tag and interlocking large steel rings, recycled saddle leather. For Rob Adams' bitch Tattie
- A single leather strap slip dog collar with interlocking large brass rings, recycled saddle leather. For Sandra Hollis's bitch Leyla
- A brown leather handbag with decorative stitching and two brass side buckles and shoulder strap, soft Argentine leather. For SRL
- Small slim horizontal iPhone 6 case with holes for charging and sound, square corners, recycled saddle leather all stitched (black). For Adina Cheriches
- A vertical iPhone case with long front flap and Sam Brown fastening stud (using up leather off-cuts), recycled black saddle leather all stitched. For Mary Ann Furze
- A greyhound collar with brass fittings, recycled saddle leather all stitched. For Col. Bruce Dyson's dog, Freddy
- A brown rectangular pill box, new English saddle leather all stitched. For me
- A black rectangular leather chocolate box, recycled saddle leather all stitched. For SRL
- A satchel in two shades of brown, soft Argentine leather with Sam Brown fittings. In stock
- A sporran in recycled saddle leather and soft Argentine leather, all stitched with Sam Brown stud. For Gary Crawford-Coupe
- A sporran in brown French leather, all stitched with brass Sam Brown stud. For me
- An iPhone 6S case in brown French leather, all stitched with brass Sam Brown stud and harness D. A second wedding present for Yoko de Coupigny
- A mobile phone wallet case in recycled brown saddle leather and soft Argentine leather, all stitched. For Baudouin Dumas de Mascarel
- A 40-inch dog collar in black recycled saddle leather, double thickness, all stitched with brass rings, all stitched. In stock
- A short strop in black recycled saddle leather with stainless steel D-ring ends, all stitched. For me
- A fairly large cycle bag to attach to handle-bars in black recycled saddle leather with two straps and brass buckles, a stitched carry-strap with brass D and Sam Brown fittings, all hand stitched. For me
- A sporran, mixed light and dark tan soft Argentine leather, all stitched with Sam Brown stud. For Gary Crawford-Coupe
- Small slim horizontal iPhone 6S case, square corners, black recycled saddle leather all stitched (black) with stainless steel D-ring. For Françoise Herman
- A small slim horizontal iPhone 6S case, square corners, black recycled saddle leather with dark brown strap, all stitched. For Nađa Kafedžić.
- A passport size document and iPhone pouch in new brown French leather, all stitched with heavy brass harness D and Sam Brown stud. In stock
- A passport size document and iPhone 6S book wallet in new brown French leather, all stitched. Version 1. For SRL
- A passport size document and iPhone 6S book wallet in new brown French leather, all stitched with tuck-in closing strap. Version 2. For me
- A travel pack wallet in new brown French leather with inner pocket and water resistant flaps, all stitched with two small D-rings, two Sam Brown studs and a brown canvas shoulder strap with two brass rein slides. For me
- A green document folder designed to include an A4 writing pad in Argentine leather, dyed forest green. For me
- A briefcase in black recycled saddle leather with two brass buckles, handle and black braided cotton rein strap, designed to take a 13" MacBook Pro plus accessories. For me
- A book bag in brown recycled Italian leather with two brass buckles and two D-rings and two rein slides with braided cotton strap. For Julien Deshayes
- A fourth sporran, begun a year earlier, made of soft Argentine leather with a strap closure on a Sam Brown stud, fitted with a braid shoulder strap. For Eva Mardell
- A large (and ambitious!) dark brown tool bag made of recycled Italian leather with a main compartment and two additional pouches, all hand stitched, with braided cotton rein straps linked with two brass circles, two brass buckles, two nickel-plated D-rings, two brass D-rings, two brass rein slides and three brass clip hooks. Designed to hold all my leather-working tools. Made by me in July/August 2017. For me
- A dark-brown A4-size artist's satchel with two compartments and two interior pouches for pens and brushes, made of recycled Italian leather, hand-stitched with two brass D-rings, two Sam Brown studs, a brass rein-slide and a braided cotton rein strap. Commissioned by Timur D'Vatz
- A dark-brown riding belt made of recycled Italian leather with brass 'stirrup' buckle and brass hitch, made for Patricia D'Vatz
- A dark-brown satchel made of recycled Italian leather all stitched, with sleeve for laptop, two brass Sam Brown studs, one brass roller buckle, two brass Ds and rein-slide on a braided rein strap. For me
- A passport size document and iPhone pouch in dark-brown recycled Italian leather, all stitched with small brass harness D and Sam Brown stud. For Quentin Dauvers
- A passport size document and iPhone 8 Plus pouch in mahogany recycled Italian leather, all stitched with small brass harness D and Sam Brown stud with a leather tube to hold an Opinel Knife. For me
- A scabbard block for a French saddler's knife, made of five layers of recycled leather. For me
- A scabbard block for a straight angled Skiving knife, made of five layers of recycled leather. For me
- A batch of spectacles cases, various sizes, in recycled mahogany-coloured Italian leather, all stitched. For Mary Ann Furze, Larisa Davatz, etc
- A phone sleeve in recycled mahogany-coloured Italian leather, all stitched. For Melissa Alexander
- First leather belt, dark brown English belt leather, hand-stitched with solid brass buckle. For me
- Second leather belt, heavy duty, double thickness, in mahogany English belt leather, hand-stitched with solid brass buckle and D-ring. For me
- A ceremonial broad leather belt, heavy duty, double thickness, in black English belt leather, hand-stitched with solid brass buckle. For Timur D'Vatz celebrating 25 years exhibiting in London
- A reliquary-shaped clutch back in black recycled saddle leather. For SRL
- A leather satchel in soft Argentine leather reinforced with English saddle leather with three Sam Brown studs, hand stitched, begun in 2016 and finished in 2018. For Patricia D'Vatz
- A large pencil case, doubling as a small handbag, in soft Argentine leather with three Sam Brown studs. Made for Patricia D'Vatz
- A slim case in soft Italian leather for an iPhone 8 Plus, with brass Sam Brown stud and three-bar drop slide. For me
Making things in leather
by Christopher Long
eather has always appealed to me the smell, the texture, the stange combination of suppleness and strength but it wasn't until March this year  that I ever considered that I might make things from it myself. In fact the idea only came about when a friend unintentionally smashed my iPhone and I knew that my new one would need the protection of a well-designed leather case. But nowhere on the web could I find exactly what I wanted.
The same problem arose when I was looking for a little leather bag to hold a puncture repair kit for my Brompton bike. When I was a child, men riding their bikes to work often had one of their fathers' World War l leather ammunition pouches attached to the back of their saddles (see photo right). The 'real thing' was the traditional little bag made by Brooks. But today a new Brooks bag can cost almost as much as a second-hand bike.
Right: Genuine WWl British military ammunition pouches. In the 1950s these were often re-used as bicycle saddle-bags for tools and puncture repair kits. This pair inspired the author to try leatherwork himself.
Below right: John Hogbin's Victorian mahogany leatherworker's box, bought by CAL in 1974 complete with tools.
And so I wondered if I could make something that would do. And by an extraordinary coincidence I remembered that somewhere I had a box of exotic-looking Victorian tools which had been languishing in the dark in a succession of attics for the past forty years... Were these by any chance leather-working tools? Well, they were. And so I started watching many of the excellent YouTube films by Ian Atkinson of Leodis Leather. He taught me a lot and then I was lucky to get encouragement from two local master saddlers, Chris Garrett and André Bubear.
As I collected a few more tools, friends offered me several large, thick, vegetable-tanned hides which had become suitably 'distressed' after spending years on an office floor pretending to be linoleum. Carefully (the best word would be 'gingerly') I began making things for myself and of course I made terrible mistakes. But I was surprised to find that I could plan out the job, cut and shape the leather, attach buckles, straps and rings and then sew the thing together by hand.
These six pictures (right) show most of the tools I use for all my projects.
This self-satisfaction was short-lived. At heart I'm a perpetually dissatisfied perfectionist and I soon realised how inadequate my first efforts had been. I try to do better and to learn from my mistakes. I've probably improved gradually making more challenging items which require new skills and techniques. But I'm eternally doomed to disappointment. Walsall for 200 years the heart of Britain's leather-working trade is not clamouring for my services. Not yet...
Meanwhile, in order to encourage others to believe that they could do at least as well as I've done, I'm including pictures on this page of all the items I've made: good, bad or indifferent. Nearly all my work is done using recycled leather which has two advantages: first, the leather has interesting patina and blemishes before I ever start working with it and, second, I can always pass off my mistakes as pre-existing characterful defects...
© (2017) Christopher A. Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated.
No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.